The Centenarian Electric Car


For Jay Leno, alternative fuel cars are nothing new. In actuality, he owns two electric cars that were built before the automobile era.

The television talk show host owns three alternative energy cars. The oldest was built in 1909 and the newest was built in 1925. The oldest is the Baker Electric and it was one of the later models of the automaker. Before the car he owns was built, the company was already in the business of building electric cars for a decade.

The Baker Electric was way ahead of its time. The car did not need to be cranked, did not reek of gasoline and was, for all practical intents and purposes, maintenance free. The electric car was marketed primarily for women, complete with potpourri and make up kit. It was also noise free, similar to modern electric vehicles. It runs on electricity stored in its alkaline battery which is essentially lead plates using acid.

Another precursor to the current line of hybrids is the Owen Magnetic. The car was unveiled in 1915 in New York. In this version, the Owen Magnetic had both a gas engine and an electric generator. The drive train for the magnetic was the idea of George Westinghouse. In his design, the engine powers the generator creating a large magnetic field between the engine and the drive wheels. There is no transmission and the way to shift is moving a rheostat between four quadrants. With this, the car moves along similar to how a maglev moves along. The car was quite famous, with Enrico Caruso and John McCormack owning these magnetic cars.

The Owen Magnetic had a 24-volt electrical system, with a black box called the brain that only the company was able to fix. Since the factory was in Pennsylvania or in Ohio, the car eventually failed the market in 1921.

Jay’s third alternative fuel car is the Doble Steamer, built in 1925. Abner Doble designed a car that uses steam to power its movement. The car uses 525 feet of steel coil and one spark plug. As one turns the key, an electric motor forces air up through a venturi, then a carburetor that mixes gasoline into the coil. The spark plug ignites it and thus heats the boiler. At the bottom of the boiler is a metal tray with quartz rods. As the heat increases the tray expands and pushes the rods forward to shut off the burner. This is a cycle as the boiler heats up and cools down. The car has no clutch or transmission and can run up to 100 mph.

Jay then shares an anecdote between Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, as the two were great friends. It was said that back in 1896 at a dinner party, Edison passed a note to Ford. It read, “The electric car is dead.” Hence the automobile became the standard form of transportation.

Funny how things that gets around comes around.